Red Velvet: The Victorian womb of the Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall: View from the bull run (photo copyright: Samira Ahmed)

The first rule of presenting the Proms is.. No one wears red at the Proms.

The second rule of Prom club is.. No one wears open toed shoes on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall. (This is apparently a health and safety thing about cello spikes, rather than a Victorian taste issue about British men in sandals).

The greatest joy of working on the Proms is to sit in on the rehearsal. Inside the Albert Hall it is always Saturday and the rehearsal is like a child’s Saturday afternoon, anticipating the excitement of the night out ahead. But the intimacy of sitting in that giant almost empty auditorium, listening to a great conductor and his orchestra work through ideas out loud,  only for you is almost more joyous than the night’s public performance could possibly be. I listen to the trembling strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales  as Tadaaki Otaka  conducts Vaughan Williams’ A Fantasia on the a theme by Thomas Tallis. On Tuesday I sat and watched  Juanjo Mena conduct Wagner’s prelude to Act One of Tristan and Isolde, as  images of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia drift into my mind, seated as I am, in an almost empty Victorian mothership. My highlight must be watching Rory Kinnear, last year, reciting Shakespeare’s famous Battle of Agincourt speech accompanied by William Walton’s Henry V suite from the Laurence Olivier film. The orchestra applauded him at the end of the rehearsal.

Last year I got to watch the conductor from the vantage point of the corner of the bullrun entrance, in those moments where he is concentrating hard, before walking on stage to the unique roar of Albert Hall applause. Again it feels strangely intimate. And a privilege.

Having now interviewed several conductors and performers I have decided they fall somwhere between statesmen and celebrities. Donald Runnicles  gives real insight in just his allotted 3 minutes, in what to appreciate about Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe and convinces me to set aside my doubts about the ballet’s “plot”. (A nymph nearly gets raped.By pirates.) He is immediately off, and I find myself staring at his surprisingly fragile looking baton, sitting on the counter. There is a moment before I think to remind him not to leave it behind. Catalan-born Juanjo Mena turns out to adore the high German Bruckner and explains his love with delightful warmth. James MacMillan I meet ahead of the first performance of his Credo. He says the Albert Hall Proms audience always bring such focus that composers like him love to get their premiere in front of them.

What strikes me most is the multiethnic nature of the Proms. The Japanese conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Tadaaki Otaka – giving instruction in rehearsal to the additional string ensemble playing up in the gallery: “Play less loud, play less loud, please.” The New Zealand born Samoan baritone, Jonathan Lemalu explaining his approach to the famous “shopping list” solo in Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. The Sikh chorister in a turban in one of the 3 massed choirs belting out the story of the decadent Babylonians that so shocked  the Church of England in the 1930s.

Most of all I love the way the music can resound around every curve. At last year’s Film Prom, they played Bernard Hermann’s The Man Who Knew Too Much score, which features an assassination at the top of the Albert Hall.  A friend, arriving late, and caught in the deserted corridors found himself terrified as the screeching violins of Psycho started up.

But I have a secret. The Royal Albert Hall haunts me. It is like Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I may not have sculpted it out of mashed potato like Richard Dreyfuss, but it has drawn me to it inevitably. It has been the scene of wild visions — watching, late at night, and  already half dreaming, as Michael Caine battled an assassin on its steps in The Ipcress File.

It has also been the setting for, amongst other things,  one of the most terrifying nightmares of my life, a meeting with the crew of the Starship Enterprise, and my one and only singing performance on a major world stage.

My first entry to the Royal Albert Hall was to perform there. A 15 year old south London school girl first wallked up the Bull Run entrance onto the stage on December 21st 1983 as part of the Wimbledon High School Choir, singing at a concert for Save the Children.

Folksinger Roger Whitaker – Born in Kenya. Still v big in Germany

While New Romanticism and synth pop dominated the charts we were on the same bill as cellist Julian Lloyd Webber,  Brideshead Revisited star Anthony Andrews, who came on stage with Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse (both unbilled) and world renowned folksinger, Roger Whitaker. According to the concert programme he had recently had a number one on the German Hit Parade.

That first visit in the depths of the 80s recession was formative. I remember only darkness outside. Four days earlier an IRA bomb had exploded very close by, outside Harrods in Knightsbridge, killing 6 people and injuring 90. And my seminal memory of the Albert Hall that day is of running round and round its shabby dark pink circular backstage corridors. Decor wise it seemed as thought it had been frozen in time since the late 60s. The colour was exactly the dark pink on the cover of Cream’s Disraeli Gears.

Albert Hall backstage wall colour circa 1983

The other choir, the Goldsmiths’ Choral Union behaved very well, but the possibilities of running round a circular corridor, trying all the doors was too tempting for us.  Two of the wilder girls (and believe me we weren’t very wild in the early 80s in Wimbledon) claimed to have burst in on Mickey and Donald getting into their costumes.  I learned later that Disney “characters” are NEVER left without security,so I think this was unlikely.

Photograph: Graeme Robertson (Guardian)

I know what it is to stand high on that stage, gaze out at the blurred array of an audience spread along the curved fringes of its cake tiers. Princess Anne was a shimmering pale blob directly ahead. Red programmes, with the words to the carols bobbed everywhere. The secret power of the Albert Hall is that you are both far away and incredibly intimate with every other person there. You can pick out any individual face, seated along its curving cakelayers,  even if you can’t actually see the whites of their eyes. It makes the experience of performing there simultaneously warm and terrifying.   The lamps glowed, the red velvet seemed to pulsate. Its appeal, with hindsight is simple. It is a massive mothership, a red velvet womb, re-incubating its occupants.

It was to be 12 years later before I came backstage again, as a BBC News Correspondent   to report on the UK’s first full scale Star Trek Convention. Steampunk was still nascent then, but watching Lieutenant Uhura walk out onto the stage of this Victorian dome amid spotlights and dry ice seemed a most appropriate pairing.

Not long after, when I was working as a news anchor on the BBC World news channel,  I had my worst ever work anxiety dream that woke me up, heart pounding in a panic. It involved me presenting  a special news bulletin, that went hideously wrong , walking in to sit high in front of the organ, and the little bust of Sir Henry Wood. In the dream, the Royal  Albert Hall was packed with the most important people in the world. I could pick out every individual face, of course, including the the Queen, the then Director General of the BBC and … my Mum.

The Albert Hall, I realised,  in my subconscious, was the ultimate seat of  judgment.

A few years on again — it was 9/11 that brought me back to the Albert Hall again, interviewing Nicholas Kenyon for Channel 4 News about why they had decided to change the programme of the Last Night of the Proms, dropping Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory (though not Jerusalem). Some of the hardcore Prommers were rather grumpy about it, but the decision to insert Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, was widely appreciated. I got to sit in an almost empty auditorium listening to American Leonard Slatkin rehearse the BBC Symphony Orchestra  just 4 days after the world had changed. My news piece never ran because of the usual timing issues that scupper a longer film when news is breaking all around.  But I went home grateful for the experience.

This is my second year presenting the Proms for television — on BBC4.  Even at 10am the call sheet reveals a world and a day timetabled to the minute with meetings and rehearsals for the broadcasters and performers. Rehearsals for Proms performers playing on subsequent nights are scheduled into small spaces in the day.

Rule 3 of the Proms seems to be there are no retakes at the Proms. Even though the concert is being recorded for broadcast a few nights later on BBC4, there is often no more than the 3 allotted minutes for each of any interviews, which have to take place during  the interval. Links into the performance are done “live” from our position in the gallery.

The fourth rule of Prom club is… there is no autocue at the Proms. And wild ad libbing is not an option. With the rapid flow of the programme (sometimes only a minute or so to fill between pieces) our scripts and agreed question areas are pared down as tightly as possible  and printed off to be cut up with scissors and  stuck on cue cards. They are re printed and restuck as necessary.The experience of  memorising cue cards is a strangely liberating one for a journalist used to the fill-the-airtime- pressures of rolling news. The editor of Channel 4 News was obsessed with the idea that we should never call it a “show”. “It’s a programme.”

But The Proms is proudly a Show. Dressed in a nice  frock, with my  50s TV panel game style cue cards, I am in the right mood. Other presenters I worked with, Suzy Klein and Charles Hazlewood showed how it is possible to keep things informal without betraying the special sense of occasion. I learn how even turning around to draw the viewer to look over your shoulder — at an orchestra tuning up  — must be done much, much slower than I’m used to, covering a breaking news event.

Last year experienced Proms’ director John Kirkby, was having to deal with problems I’d not anticipated. The televisual challenge of shooting Ravel’s Bolero; a love it or hate it crowd pleaser. You might underestimate how satisfying it is to watch a Prom on TV. How the mix of shots engages you, especially on the more complex pieces. But Bolero, says John Kirkby, is like directing a pop video. You’ve got no option but to cut on the beat. And for 15 minutes. Not just 3. Somehow he finds a way. In the gallery (a truck parked outside the building) in a mini-replication of conducting the orchestra, someone is counting the bars, and someone else is counting the individual beats as the director hold it all together to cut from shot to shot.

Confession: if you watch Thursday’s concert. I broke the First Rule of Prom club.

Further viewing/watch again

Prom 23 broadcast BBC4 Thursday August 9th 730pm (recorded July 31st)

 Prom 33 broadcast BBC4 Friday August 10th 7pm (recorded August 7th)

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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